After a short stop in Honolulu our plane soared to an altitude of 30,000 feet for a 14 hours flight to the “Land of the Rising Sun.” I wondered whether books, movies, meals, alcohol and the occasional nap would distract me from the stress of being in a small space for a long time!
When I could not longer sit in my seat I walked up and down the aisles and talked with other passengers along the way. I met Australians, New Zealanders, Germans, and added our brief talks to my travel diary. When I returned to my seat K asked, with a look on his face as if he had tasted something bitter, where had I been. Chatting with people, I replied. Why don’t you just sit down and read, he said, turning the page in his book, dismissing me.
I didn’t think much about his remark until we were in our Tokyo hotel room unpacking and he turned to me saying,” I think this trip was a mistake. I might not continue on with you.”
Shocked by his comment I could only reply, your friends are meeting us downstairs in an hour. Lets get ready. He nodded. And I was left wondering what other surprises might be in store for me.
That first night in Tokyo two schoolmates of K’s, their wives, and a beautiful old woman, introduced as Mrs. Inouye, their grandmother, arrived at out hotel lobby to take us to dinner. They offered us beautifully wrapped packages, a traditional Japanese welcome. Mine was a silk scarf which I wrapped around my neck saying “Thank you”while they bowed even though everyone but Mrs. Inouye spoke English.
We set off for dinner, with Mrs. Inouye holding my hand till we reached our destination. Entering through two huge and ornately carved doors we found ourselves in a golden hued softly lit room, with low set burnished wooden tables and floor cushions on a mat covered floor. Ceiling fans whispered above. The only adornment were the staff’s jewel colored kimono’s.
Mrs. Inouye sank onto a cushion pulling me down next to her. She patted my cheek, then my hair and a beautiful smile lit up her face. I thought perhaps my platinum hair mesmerized her!
One of the servers handed us hot towels to wash our hands. Menus written in Japanese, without translation, arrived. I settled back as the men ordered, taking note of how odd the Japanese language sounded and wondered what would arrive at our table.
Small stone carafe’s of warmed Sake, the traditional Japanese alcoholic drink, were placed on the tables with tiny cups. Mrs. Inouye poured a cup of Sake and offered it to me. It was my first taste of Sake. I quickly emptied my cup and held it out for a refill.
The next few courses were a clear miso soup, followed by a variety of
vegetables, steamed sticky rice, and a myriad of sauces in tiny bowls. Finally a wooden block with bits and slivers of raw fish was set in the middle of the table, my first sushi experience. Using her chopsticks, Mrs. Inouye examined every morsel of fish before placing a bit of this, a bit of that, on my plate along with fresh ginger and wasabi.
Other than a cherrystone or oyster I had never eaten raw fish nor the sauces. Bravely I maneuvered a piece of fish dipped in wasabi into my mouth. After I caught my breath, with my eyes watering, I cleared my throat and said I liked it. Everyone laughed. Mrs. Inouye fed me throughout the meal and held my hand until we said goodbye at the hotel.
The next day K was off with his friends leaving me free to discover the city. Nothing more was mentioned about our trip being a mistake, but I did wonder who was this man I was traveling with.
I decided to take a short walk. As all the signage was in Japanese characters, a hotel business card insured I could gt back to the hotel. Once outside the racket from horns and traffic was not unlike NYC. The sidewalks were filled with people who, to my eyes, both looked and dressed alike. As I passed a huge plate glass window mirroring the scene I was struck by how different I looked.
I made it back to the hotel and the concierge called a cab to drop me off at Tokyo’s largest department store where two white gloved attendants, after a quick bow, pulled the doors open to what looked like Filene’s of Boston. But as I wandered from floor to floor I quickly realized the difference: Each floor serviced customers needs, from womb to tomb, bassinet’s to coffins.
On my return to the main floor I wandered around the cosmetic department and was greeted by a woman speaking English asking me if I would be interested in having Shishedo do a makeover for me? I said yes!
She introduced me to the cosmetician, who bowed, and offered his hand to climb up the mirrored steps to the platform where his station was set. Draped in a black kimono, I looked down from my perch to a sea of golden faces with shiny black hair and bright red-lipsticked mouths and thought how all those women reminded me of a garden of anemones. When the young man finished he handed me a mirror and whipped off my cape to a round of applause from the appreciative audience. And I, feeling very platinum blond, wondered what did all these women see?
We spent close to two weeks in Japan. I found Tokyo jammed with people. In subway stations, when it seemed a train could not hold one more person, attendants, gloves on, appeared to literally shove more people onto the train before signaling for the doors to close. I learned that because Japan was so crowded, not making eye contact was a sign of respect, allowing people their privacy. I became very familiar with toilets that were two footprints and a hole. And I fell in love with Ueno Zoo and its Panda’s.
But my favorite place was a short ride out of Tokyo to the spa town Hakone, home of the Hakone Open -Air Museum situated atop a mountain.
Riding up to the top was an adventure! The train wound its way up, zig-zagging back and forth over switchbacks, across gorges, until it reached its last stop, the museum, set in spectacular grounds, the permanent home for approximately 120 works by well-known modern and contemporary sculptors. Add to this 5 exhibition halls including the Picasso Pavilion,
I visited Hakone twice while in Tokyo and yearn for a return visit. There is so much to see from interactive child friendly sculptures to pieces that moved, to stationary pieces that in their silence caused me to stare in wonder, or to be electrified by their energy. I share a few of my favorite pieces to allow readers to see the splendor of the setting and variety of sculptures.
While I loved Tokyo and Hakone I was ready for our next destination. The Hokkaido Express, at 180 miles per hour, sped to the more tranquil Kyoto, where we were to spend a few days exploring Kyoto and staying at a typical Japanese Inn, known as ryokans.
Once at the station we hailed a cab and within a few minutes it turned at a bamboo fenced residence, passed through its iron gate, and pulled up to a long low building almost hidden in plantings. We were greeted by a kimono clad woman who led us to an area with a low table set in sunken area. Once we are seated she brings hot towels, plum cakes and my requested shot of Suntory Scotch, while we are checked in. That done she beckoned us to follow her down a corridor with shoji screens for walls. When she slid a screen back, we followed her into a dimly lit room. One wall opened to a stone garden with a miniature waterfall and dwarf tree with one orange bloom. She then opened a low chest and pulled thick futons and pillows onto mats. Finally she showed us the bathroom, with a western style toilet, but a deep wooden tub filled with skin stinging hot water, Japanese style, already drawn for our anticipated bath.
Every evening when we returned from exploring the art and architecture of Kyoto it felt as if we were the only two people in this paradise. It was one of the most romantic places I have ever stayed. And it worked its magic on us. Our time in Japan was coming to a close and I was more than ready for our next destination, the mythical land of Hong Kong.